Ministry of Justice Spending Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Ministry of Justice Spending

David Hanson Excerpts
Thursday 3rd October 2019

(10 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Ministry of Justice
Dame Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton) - Hansard
3 Oct 2019, 3:39 p.m.

Order. We have seven speakers, so if everybody takes about eight minutes we should be able to get everyone in comfortably for the winding-up speeches.

David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab) Parliament Live - Hansard
3 Oct 2019, 3:39 p.m.

May I welcome this debate, as well as the introductory remarks from the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill)—in this case, he is my hon. Friend—who spoke on behalf of the Justice Committee? Like him, I pay tribute to staff who work throughout the justice system. Today’s estimates pay their wages, provide their conditions of work and give them the tools to do the job that I know they are committed to. Therefore, while exploring these estimates, I hope we can focus on some of the real challenges faced by those staff.

I welcome the Minister to his new job. It is 10 years since I was Minister of State in the Ministry of Justice—a long time ago. When I was Minister—this is one of the challenges we face—there was 40% more expenditure on justice matters than is proposed today. Although changes were made by the Government in August this year—we will touch on that—there has been a 40% reduction in the amount of resource going into the Ministry of Justice over that time. Those provisions were volunteered up by Ministers, some of whom are not even members of the Conservative party these days in terms of their political affiliation.

The Ministry of Justice budget fell from £10.6 billion in 2010 to £7.9 billion in 2020. Let no one be mistaken: those reductions have had a consequence on the services delivered by the Ministry of Justice, on the performance of staff under pressure and on the safety of staff in prisons across the estate for which the MOJ is responsible. They have also had a consequence on the MOJ’s ability to improve reoffending rates and reduce crime and to provide a service to consumers and constituents of mine and every Member of the House regarding work on legal aid, access to justice, fighting for employment rights through the tribunal system and a range of other matters. That 40% reduction has made a real difference, and I wish to explore with the Minister the proposals for the revised sums he has brought forward.

Let us take this year’s figures. In many prisons, the safety of staff and those sentenced to prison is at higher risk than it was 12 months ago. We must address that issue to ensure a solid performance across the prison estate and achieve the reoffending rates that I know the Minister would want. Over the past 12 months, there has been a 24% rise in incidents of self-harm, to a record high of 57,968. The number of assaults has also risen to a record high of 34,425 in the past 12 months—an 11% increase on the previous year. In the 12 months to March this year, there were 10,300 assaults—11% of which were serious assaults—on staff and those doing their job to try to turn around those offenders in our prisons. That figure is up by 15% on the previous year.

The funding settlement needs to address ways to recruit more staff and to retain existing staff and support them in the workplace. We must try to professionalise and support staff on the front line. We know about the situation in prisons and about issues such as drugs entering prison, new psychoactive substances, increasingly violent prisoners being placed in prison and a range of people with mental health problems that cause aggressive behaviour. Those are real challenges, and the reduction in funding to date has meant they have been exacerbated by having a smaller number of staff, by the loss of experienced staff and by not allowing people out of cells to achieve some of the rehabilitation work, drug training courses or educational work that they need to turn their lives around. This settlement—the expansion in resource that the Government propose—needs to focus first and foremost on safety in prisons. Without safe prisons, we cannot have rehabilitation on the scale of our ambitions.

In August, the Government made a series of additional spending announcements. They announced additional police officers—I have also been the Police Minister—with 20,000 more officers to replace the 20,000 that have been cut. The Government announced the recruitment of police officers and prison officers: some would say that it is about recruitment of votes, rather than staff. The key point for the Minister to explain today is how he will address the issues. The policy announcements that have been made to date include 10,000 additional prison places, including investment in prison security—undoubtedly welcome—and an additional prison building programme. But we have no detail yet on how, when, where and at what stage those prison officers are to be recruited. We have no detail about the period over which those new prison places are to be built and whether they will replace new prisons or are genuinely new and additional prison places.

At the same time, a review has been announced by the Prime Minister of sentencing in England and Wales. It will not look at increasing community sentences or tackling short-term sentences, which the former Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke) wanted to look at. Instead, it will look at how we can put longer prison sentences in place. How will that all fit together? There were no policy details in the budget announcement in August about the condition of the prison estate, despite the fact that the prison estate is key to improving the rehabilitation of prisoners. The MOJ estimates a current backlog of some £900 million of repairs that need to be done in our prisons. There was nothing in the announcement in August that I could see about how much money will be put towards the maintenance work needed to ensure that we have safe cells. Fixing draughty cells, dangerously fitted cells, old cells and cells that people cannot leave to undertake education and training is material to improving reoffending rates.

Reoffending costs us £18 billion a year, which is far more than the Ministry of Justice’s budget for investment in prisons and probation. Reoffending, especially by prisoners with short-term sentences, is extremely high. We had a lot of rhetoric six to nine months ago about tackling short-term prison sentences. I have seen nothing in the estimates about a change to super-charge community-based sentences as an alternative to short-term prison sentences of under six months, particularly for women offenders, many of whom are in prison on a short-term basis that will not secure their long-term rehabilitation back into society.

I will discount the 40% cut for now, even though it has been significant over the past nine and a half years. Instead, I ask what steps will be taken, under the current budget settlement, to make the prison estate a place of safety for staff and prisoners. What steps are being taken to ensure that we recruit and retain professional staff? What steps are being undertaken to super-charge the effort to reduce reoffending? What steps are being taken to ensure that people on short-term sentences see a real and effective shift in the time they are in prison? What steps are being taken to reduce the female prison population as a matter of urgency?

There are real arguments for reviewing short-term sentences, supporting alternative sentencing for women and looking again at the rehabilitation and employment links that require money. The emphasis on a capital building programme is wrong. We should look at investing in and improving the existing estate, retaining and improving the quality of staff and making prisons safe. I welcome the debate, because there are some serious discussions to be had. I wish the Minister well in what is a tough old job for him and his team, but real dividends can be achieved and real changes can be made. It will require political drive, but that drive seems to have shifted back towards longer term prison sentences and away from community-based rehabilitation in the statements made since the Prime Minister took office.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard
3 Oct 2019, 3:49 p.m.

Let me say what a pleasure it is to follow the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), who speaks with such authority, particularly on prisons. It was a privilege to serve alongside him on the Select Committee on Justice.

It is important to put this debate on spending into context by setting out how much money we are talking about and where it sits in the grand scheme of things. The useful briefing provided by the Justice Committee makes it clear that the MOJ’s resource budget for 2020-21 will be a little over £8 billion. True, the total amount spent will be a little more, due to annual managed expenditure, but the departmental expenditure limit is about £8 billion. To put that in context, total Government expenditure is anticipated to be over £850 billion, the point being that, whether it is a little less or a little more, the MOJ’s budget is at or around 1% of total Government expenditure. That may or may not be remarkable in and of itself, but the items that the MOJ has to fund and secure could not be more important in our society.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the funding of prisons, and while that is critical, what he did not touch on—this is no criticism of him—was legal aid. The danger when discussing legal aid is that there could be a misconception in society—which could even be reflected among the relatively modest number of hon. Members present in today’s debate—of legal aid and access to justice as a “nice to have” rather than a fundamental and essential part of a functioning democracy.

That critical nature was recognised back in the 1940s, when British politicians were grappling with what the shape and nature of the welfare state should be. At that time, they considered the NHS, but they also considered the provision of legal aid to people of all means to be a critically important duty. In reaching that conclusion, they no doubt drew on some of the learning that came from Magna Carta, which said:

“We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.”

Those ancient words convey something extremely important: if we are to be equal before the law, we must have access to the law. And so it was that, in the White Paper that preceded the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949, these words appeared:

“no one would be financially unable to prosecute a just and reasonable claim or defend a legal right”.

That must be the underpinning of a fair society. If people are granted rights by this place, they should be able to prosecute and defend them.

What has happened since 1949—no doubt, to cater for the increasingly complex world—is that the rights available to people are themselves more complex, whether it is to do with the employment sphere, protecting data or securing contact arrangements with children, which may be increasingly complicated, with one parent living abroad and so on. However, securing those rights is no less important now than it was then. The Supreme Court gave a trenchant judgment back in 2017 in the Unison case, when it had to consider whether employment tribunal fees were set too high. Ultimately, it concluded that they were, but the point that Lord Reed made—I am not quoting but paraphrasing—was that unless every person can get access to justice, the laws made in this place are liable to become a dead letter. He said that the work done in this Parliament would become nugatory and, in a memorable phrase, that

“the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade.”

In those powerful remarks, Lord Reed encapsulated a fundamental truth, the importance of which I suspect hon. Members from across the House will have experienced in their constituency surgeries. I had a constituent—I will not name her, for reasons that are obvious—who faced a very upsetting set of circumstances. Her child was subject to contact arrangements made in a French court, which meant, putting it very simply, that she was unable to have access to her child, because there was a conflict-of-laws issue that needed resolving. Of course, she could not get legal aid to help her with that. Ultimately, she was assisted by a lawyer who gave tens, if not hundreds, of hours entirely pro bono to assist her. Justice was done because that lawyer was able to show that she had indeed been wronged by the courts process and that her rights needed to be asserted.

I want to take this opportunity, if I may, Madam Deputy Speaker, to pay tribute to all those lawyers up and down the country who give of their time to speak truth to power, to redress grievances and to do so entirely free of charge. They really do heroic work. It is unfashionable in this place to pay tribute to lawyers, but those who work pro bono are some of the best in our society.

The total budget for legal aid is at or around £1.7 billion, and I want to conclude by putting that figure into some context. To the Syrian crisis alone the UK will be giving—in a gesture that is no doubt entirely appropriate and that entirely speaks of our humane and responsible nature as a nation—something like £2.7 billion. That may be entirely appropriate, but we should not neglect the legal aid budget. I do, of course, declare an interest as a legal aid lawyer, but that experience has taught me that, unless we properly resource legal aid, there will be a number of outcomes.

First, there will be the sorts of cases I referred to a few moments ago, with individuals being denied justice. Secondly, there will be an increase, which we have already seen, in litigants in person, who have to contend with an extremely alien and sometimes forbidding environment—a situation, by the way, that several judges find extremely difficult to deal with, despite their best efforts. The third and most important thing is manifest injustice. I went along to the Gloucester Law Centre, and it was really troubling to hear from hard-working and dedicated lawyers that they do what they can but that they recognise there are large areas that simply cannot be addressed.

The fourth thing—we do not want to scaremonger, but we must keep this in mind—is that if people cannot get access to justice, there is always a risk that they will take justice into their own hands. Although I suspect that the British people do not get quite as exercised about issues of legal aid as they might about the health service or education, they do recognise injustice when they see it. We all recall the case of Liam Allan, a young man who had been accused of rape. It emerged that, because of failings in the prosecution, critical text messages on the mobile telephone in that case were not disclosed. When they were, it emerged that he had been wrongly charged, and he was ultimately acquitted. When the British people became aware of that, they were rightly horrified, and the Government and the House have a duty to ensure that they will not be horrified in future by people not being able to seek access to justice.

I know that the Government are doing fantastic work in this field and that the overall budget has gone up by £4.9 billion. I also know from speaking to my hon. Friend the Minister’s predecessor that early advice and assistance have been given very close focus. As my hon. Friend begins his ministerial career, which I know will be long and successful, I urge him to give the closest possible attention to access to justice. We cannot have a society where the finest courts, which we have, and the finest judges, which we have, are truly accessible only to those with the means to pay. If we want to continue to be a shining light, with an international reputation for upholding the highest standards, those standards and that justice must be available to all.